One of the difficulties in researching or tracking state laws is that each jurisdiction has a slightly different process for enacting legislation. In broad stokes, they are similar: they all have a legislature that passes bills and an executive who then signs or vetoes them, but the details of each state’s method of enacting statutes can be confusing if you don’t work in that state on a regular basis.

No where is that more true than in one of the jurisdictions that has recently legalized marijuana use for recreational purposes – the nation’s capital, Washington, DC. The law is unusual, in that you can use marijuana and you can possess (a certain amount of) marijuana, but you can’t buy or sell marijuana. Also, the District cannot appropriate any funds to enforce this law.

Why is DC unlike other jurisdictions that have legalized marijuana and allowed for its sale? It’s due to the involvement of the United States Congress in DC’s affairs.

DC is a unique jurisdiction – not a state, not a territory, but a district housing the Capitol, the White House, many federal courts and a large number of government agencies. In addition, more than 650,000 people live here. Over the course of the country’s history, the rights of these people have been severely restricted – at one point, they were not able to vote for President.

Things are not quite so bad as that now, but any legislation passed by the DC Council and signed by the Mayor needs to be approved by Congress. Congress doesn’t need to take any action to approve a bill, it just needs to not dis-approve it. Most of the time, DC legislation goes to Capitol Hill and emerges intact. Sometimes, though, Congress takes action, usually when the subject is something controversial. Legal marijuana falls into that category.

The use of marijuana for recreational purposes was approved by a ballot initiative, and Congress did not dis-approve it. They did, however, add restrictions on marijuana (no sale, no enforcement) to last year’s budget bill.

For those of you not familiar with the intricacies of the DC legislative process, have a look at this page from the DC Council’s website: DC Council FAQs. It provides a good, clear description of the way that the system works.

If you’d like something that’s a bit less detailed, but does involve singing, a 51 state flag and a video of Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC’s non-voting representative in Congress), see this clip from Last Week Tonight: John Oliver on DC Statehood.